Frederika Whitehead, The Guardian, March 05, 2013
Ask any vegetarian who's been to Asia about the food and they will tell you something along these lines: "I told them I was vegetarian and they offered me chicken" or: "I ordered vegetable noodles and they came with bits of pork in the broth" or even "I went to Asia a vegetarian but gave up and came back having eaten sparrow, dog and snake as well as beef and chicken."
Six years ago, I went on an escorted press trip around China. I told the organisers I was a vegetarian. They gave me a funny look but said: "OK, fine." And then served me pork dumplings, seafood and beef noodles – all of which they said "wasn't meat". So for three weeks I got by eating just the boiled rice and bags of peanuts from the hotel bar, and lost a stone. It was hearing countless similar tales of vegetarian woe that prompted Jamie Barys and Kyle Long to offer a vegetarian-themed guided walk around Shanghai's food streets.
"We've been running street food tours under the name of UnTour Shanghai for about two years, and we were getting a surprising number of emails from people saying: 'I'm a vegetarian, can you help me?'" Barys says. "We were incorporating advice for vegetarians in our regular street food tour but there was enough demand to launch a separate tour. We launched Vegetarian Voyage in May and at the moment we are getting enough requests to run it about once every two weeks."
"Chinese people don't really understand what being vegetarian means, or why someone wouldn't want to eat meat. Most of their dishes are not a slab of beef – they use meat to flavour their food, or they garnish it with a little sprinkle of pork. 60% to 90% of the dish is vegetarian and vegetarians are expected to pick around the meat," Barys says.
UnTour's vegetarian tour takes place at breakfast time. Barys starts by taking us for a stroll through Xiangyang park, in an area of Shanghai known as the French concession. We pass Chinese pensioners walking backwards around the perimeter of the park to improve their co-ordination and balance. Leaving the park we turn on to Xiangyang Road – one of Shanghai's few remaining food streets. Next to each stall a few plastic seats and tables are strewn across the pavement. A woman hoses down the pavement to wash away the debris from a previous batch of diners. And all kinds of food are being prepared.
Barys orders our first dish of the day: qingcai baozi, a steamed bun with a bok choi, mushroom and tofu filling. One bite of this and I am determined to hunt these out when I'm back in the UK. It's absolutely delicious – like a tofu casserole inside a bread roll. There is a faint whiff of star anise from the marinade of the tofu.
The same stallholder also sells "tea eggs" (cha ye dan), hard-boiled eggs which have had their shells cracked and have been marinaded in tea with soy sauce, vinegar, star anise and cinnamon. When buying these you need to be careful that you aren't pointing at a tray of similar-looking Maodan – fertilised eggs, boiled with the foetus inside …
Barys also orders us a da congyou bing – a big pancake made from a millet batter. An egg is broken on top of the partly cooked pancake, this is chopped up and spread over the pancake so it covers the whole surface, then brushed with hoisin sauce and sprinkled with chilli flakes and finely chopped spring onions and coriander. Finally it is folded several times to form a thick, many-layered wedge. The hoisin sauce runs through it like a thin layer of jam. The egg gives each layer of the fold a crispy skin. It is delicious, doughy, very filling and best eaten immediately.
A little further up the same road we taste bamboo tofu fried with fresh green peppers and dried red chilli peppers. "Bamboo tofu is the butter of tofu, the stuff that floats to the top of the pot; they scrape it off and dry it out, and then dehydrate it to store it," Barys tells us. It looks a bit like tree bark – hence the name. "The stuff they sell as tofu in the west – in the plastic trays with water – of course it tastes awful; any food left sitting in water would taste awful," she continues.
I'm smitten with the dish, and my eyes light up when we reach another tofu stall a bit further down the road. Barys sees me heading towards it. On the hot plate are pinky-red squares of infused beancurd, and I wonder what it has been spiced with. "Yeah, you want to watch out for that tofu", she says. "That's been marinaded in pigs blood."
We finish our breakfast with pudding – a danta, or Macanese egg tart, from Lillian's bakery in the Paris Spring Mall near South Shaanxi Road metro station. This egg custard recipe has been popular in Southern China since the Portuguese ran Macau. "When KFC moved to Chin,a they were reported to have paid millions for the original recipe and they now sell 450bn of these egg tarts a year," Barys says.
As an aside, as she leaves us Barys points out a building site near the metro station. "People are getting very excited. The rumour is that Jamie Oliver took a look at this site for a possible new venture." He will have his work cut out if he wants to compete with the food the locals are producing. I won't be losing weight in Shanghai this time around. Not now I've learnt to order baozis, bings and dantas.
• Frederika Whitehead went on the Vegetarian Voyage food tour of Shanghai's street food with Untours. The tour lasts 3½ hours and costs $180 for up to six guests.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk